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Travel Guide > Asia > Indonesia

Indonesia People & Culture

  
 
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Despite 50 years of promoting Bhinneka Tunggal Ika ("Unity in Diversity") as the official state motto, the concept of an "Indonesian" remains artificial and the country's citizens divide themselves along a vast slew of ethnicities, clans, tribes and even castes. If this wasn't enough, religious differences add a volatile ingredient to the mix and the vast gaps in wealth create a class society as well.

On a purely numerical scale, the largest ethnic groups are the Javanese (45%) of central and eastern Java, the Sundanese (14%) from western Java, the Madurese (7.5%) from the island of Madura, and Coastal Malays (7.5%), mostly from Sumatra. This leaves 26% for the Acehnese and Minangkabau of Sumatra, the Balinese, the Iban and Dayaks of Kalimantan, and a bewildering patchwork of groups in Nusa Tenggara and Papua — the official total is no less than 3000!

For the most part, Indonesia's many peoples coexist happily, but ethnic conflicts do continue to fester in some remote areas of the country. The policy of transmigration (transmigrasi), initiated by the Dutch but continued by Suharto, resettled Javanese, Balinese and Madurese migrants to less crowded parts of the archipelago. The new settlers, viewed as privileged and insensitive, were often resented by the indigenous populace and, particularly on Kalimantan and Papua, led to sometimes violent conflict.

One particularly notable ethnic group found throughout the country are the Indonesian Chinese, known as Tionghoa or the somewhat derogatory Cina. At an estimated 6-7 million they make up 3% of the population and probably constitute the largest ethnic Chinese group in any country outside China. Indonesian Chinese wield a disproportionate influence in the economy, with one famous — if largely discredited — study of companies on the Jakarta Stock Exchange concluding that as many as 70% of its companies (and, by extension, the country) were controlled by ethnic Chinese. They have thus been subject to persecution, with Chinese forcibly relocated into urban areas in the 1960s, forced to adopt Indonesian names and bans imposed on teaching Chinese and displaying Chinese characters. Anti-Chinese pogroms have also take place, notably in the 1965-66 anti-Communist purges after Suharto's coup and again in 1998 after his downfall, when over 1100 people were killed in riots in Jakarta and other major cities. However, the post-Reformasi governments have overturned most of the discriminatory legislation, and Chinese writing and Chinese festivals have made a tentative reappearance. While most of the Java Chinese are monolingual in Indonesian, many of the Chinese in Sumatra and Kalimantan continue to speak various Chinese dialects.

Culture

There is no one unified Indonesian culture as such, but the Hindu culture of the former Majapahit empire does provide a framework for the cultural traditions of the central islands of Sumatra, Java and Bali. Perhaps the most distinctively "Indonesian" arts are wayang kulit shadow puppetry, where intricately detailed cutouts act out scenes from the Mahabharata and Ramayana and other popular folk stories, and its accompaniment the gamelan orchestra, whose incredibly complex metallic rhythms are the obligatory backdrop to both religious ceremonies and traditional entertainment. Indonesia is culturally intertwined with the Malay, with notable items such as batik cloth and kris daggers, and Arabic culture has also been adopted to some degree thanks to Islam.

Modern-day Indonesian popular culture is largely dominated by the largest ethnic group, the Javanese. Suharto's ban on Western imports like rock'n'roll, while long since repealed, led to the development of indigenous forms of music like dangdut, a sultry form of pop developed in the 1970s, and the televised pelvic thrusts of starlet Inul Daratista in 2003 were nearly as controversial as Elvis once was. Anggun Cipta Sasmi is a talented Indonesian singer who became a famous singer in France. Her single "La neige au sahara" became a top hit on the European charts in the summer of 1997.
Most Indonesian films are low budget B movies. "Daun di Atas Bantal" (1998) is an exception; it won the "best movie" award at the Asia Pacific Film Festival in Taipei, Taiwan (1998).

Indonesian literature has yet to make much headway on the world stage, with torch-bearer Pramoedya Ananta Toer's works long banned in his own homeland, but the post-Suharto era has seen a small boom with Ayu Utami's Saman breaking both taboos and sales records.

Customs

By and large (hawkers and touts don't count), Indonesians are a polite people and adopting a few local conventions will go a long way to smooth your stay.

One general tip for getting by in Indonesia is that saving face is extremely important in Indonesian culture. If you should get into a dispute with a vendor, government official etc, forget trying to argue or 'win'. Better results will be gained by remaining polite and humble at all times, never raising your voice, and smiling, asking the person to help you find a solution to the problem. Rarely, if ever, is it appropriate to try to blame, or accuse.

When meeting someone, be it for the first time ever or just the first time that day, it is common to shake hands — but in Indonesia this is no knuckle-crusher, just a light touching of the palms, often followed by bringing your hand to your chest. Meetings often start and end with everybody shaking hands with everybody! However, don't try to shake hands with a Muslim woman unless she offers her hand first. It is respectful to bend slightly (not a complete bow) when greeting someone older or in a position of authority.

Never use your left hand for anything! It is considered very rude. This is especially true when you are shaking hands or handing something to someone. It can be hard to get used to, especially if you are left handed. However, sometimes special greetings are given with both hands.

Polite forms of address for people you don't know are Bapak ("father") for men and Ibu ("mother") for women. If you know the name of the person you're talking to, you can address them respectfully as Pak Name (for men) or Bu Name (for women). The Javanese terms mas ("older brother") and mbak ("older sister") are also heard, but best reserved for equals, not superiors.

Remove your shoes or sandals outside before entering a house, unless the owner explicitly allows you to keep them on. Even then, it might be more polite to remove your shoes. Do not put your feet up while sitting and try not to show the bottom of your feet to someone, it is considered rude. Don't walk in front of people, instead walk behind them.

Do not stand or sit with your arms crossed or on your hips. This is a sign of anger or hostility. If a guest, it is not polite to finish any drink all the way to the bottom of the glass. This indicates that you would like more. Instead, leave about a half of an inch/2cm in the bottom of your glass and someone will most likely ask you if you would like more.

And if all this seems terribly complex, don't worry about it too much — Indonesians are an easygoing bunch and don't expect foreigners to know or understand intricacies of etiquette.

Dress

By and large, Indonesia is a conservative country and modest dress is advisable. On the beaches of Bali and Lombok, the locals are used to foreigners gamboling about in bikinis, but elsewhere women are advised to keep legs and necklines covered and to match the locals when bathing. (Covering your hair is unnecessary, although doing so may be appreciated in Aceh.) Wearing shorts, miniskirts etc is unlikely to cause actual offense, but clothing like this is associated with sex workers. Men, too, can gain respect by wearing collared, long-sleeve shirts and trousers if dealing with bureaucracy.





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